Dr. Hans Gruber watched as the scientists administered the treatments to the test subjects. The results looked promising; half the test subjects were showing signs of mental activity, which denoted potential for telepathic activity. The other half... well, it was best not to think about them. Medical advances always involved... setbacks. Unfortunately, because the goal was to create and boost mental powers, the ability to use test animals was limited. Therefore, one had to be flexible with the definition of "test animals".
The facility was officially named Base Michael-Sierra One. It had been nicknamed "The Farm" by the workers, in reference to its remote location and rural surroundings. Officially, Project Mindshadow fell under the umbrella of the Meta Task Force headed by General Garner, with the stated goal of furthering human development. Quietly, it was understood that the real goal was to provide the government a means of regaining control of the increasing number of metahumans in the world. In this narrow field, Gruber was one of the best. His work was shunned because it drew its roots from the WWII Nazi mind control experiments and his questionable medical ethics. His expertise with mental development was nonetheless unquestioned.
"We have initial results from the third pass of medications, Dr. Gruber," one of the scientists reported as he handed Gruber a clipboard. Gruber looked it over and grimaced; only a 120 percent gain in previous mental activity. Unfortunately, it appeared to him that they were hitting the curve of diminishing returns using psychotropic drugs alone.
"Tell the team to begin electro-shock treatments."
The scientist nodded without missing a beat. On paper, the electro-shock treatments had the potential of supercharging the mental development of the necessary energy to generate mental powers. The risks of frying people's minds however were considerable. Gruber made a mental reminder to request more test subjects; he suspected he would be needing replacements soon.
Andrew McGee made his way to the lunch table carrying his usual tray of food. The food service here was adequate but bland. He really didn't have much choice on food selection and right now, he would pay real money for a decent bowl of chocolate pudding. With all the drugs these government guys were feeding them, he would have thought they could afford a couple of boxes of Jello.
"Andrew, over here."
Andrew was surprised to hear his name and walked over to the young woman who called him. She was a pretty redhead with a tray of the same food he was holding. The color-coded tag on her shirt marked her as one of the test subjects.
"How'd you know my name?" Andrew asked with a quizzically look.
"I read your mind," she whispered back conspiratorially, before smirking. "Nah, I asked the lunch counter guy."
Andrew took the invitation and sat down. He looked at her lunch tray and noticed her smaller portions. "Having trouble keeping food down?"
She nodded. "Sometimes. The doctors say I should still try to eat though. Also, I get these headaches when they do their tests on us."
Andrew nodded. He was in a different group of people, on a different set of medications. The tests they were subjected to sometimes made his nose bleed when he was told to concentrate on items placed in front of him and move them with his mind.
The woman smiled and offered her hand. "I'm Vickie." She glanced back at the watching security staff, then added drolly, "or as they call me, 'Subject F12'."
"Subject M21," Andrew replied at the little joke and took her hand. "But you can call me Andy."
Dr. Hans Gruber watched the grisly scene from behind the one-way mirror. The room had the benefit of being soundproofed. Not that Dr. Gruber worried about suffering in the name of science, but there was only so much caterwauling one could take.
It had been a few months since Dr. Gruber's decision to accelerate the development of his genetics program. Unfortunately, his theories of what a human mind could withstand came crashing against the unforgiving wall of reality. One of the assistants handed him a clipboard summarizing the latest results. Reading them over made Dr. Gruber shake his head with a mix of resignation and hope. So the electro-shock treatments were a little harsh after all. He had half-expected these results, but had hoped that his new collection of psychotropic drugs would allow the human mind to tolerate the shock treatments used to open up new neural pathways.
"What is your latest update?"
Dr. Gruber turned around and nodded at the man sitting in the shadows. He wanted to ask the man not to smoke in the labs, but this man had the seniority to dictate otherwise. "We've lost about 30 of our test subjects. Of the remaining subjects, most of them are exhibiting signs of advanced psychosis Mr. Raintree."
John Raintree nodded gravely and looked back into the room of screaming patients. "How many subjects are still psychologically viable?"
"We have six: Subjects F12, F4, F35, M9, M21, and M43. They each are showing signs of significant psychic potential."
Raintree flipped through the details and raised his eyebrows. "Some of this is quite impressive. It is distressing to have such a high rate of negative side effects. I understand there's also a child involved?"
"Yes sir, follow me."
Raintree and Gruber walked into a series of corridors to a separate set of rooms. The staff here included a large number of medical personnel. A prenatal medical unit had been set up with an infant being examined by a series of sensors.
"Apparently subjects M21 and F12 decided to participate in some...extracurricular activities." Gruber shook his head. "Young people these days..."
Raintree paused as he read the last set of pages. "Are these readings from the child accurate?"
"We believe them to be sir."
Raintree looked into the prenatal facility with a glimmer of hope and grave concern. "Start a program to track her development. Perhaps there is an opportunity here to take the Project to another level."
Andrew McGee trembled as he sat in the testing room. His hands were manacled to the chair to ensure no chance at corrupting the tests, but the worst part was his head. The days and nights had become a blur of pain and suffering. The doctors had assured him over and over that his body would adapt to the changes in time, but that didn't help his situation nor quiet his fears. The lunchroom, once full of test subjects, was now down to only a small handful. Men and women he once had pleasant conversations with were now reduced to babbling loonies, some of who had to be physically restrained.
"Please concentrate on the test objects." the voice ordered from the speaker.
Andrew nodded tiredly and looked at the table in front of him. Arranged in a neat order was a set of iron weight plates and dumbbells. They were laid out order of increasing weight. He stared at the weights and his brow furrows. Despite the discomfort and stress, there was still a small part of him that found this exercise fascinating.
Behind the glass of the observation room, the technicians watched with more clinical detachment. It wasn't that there wasn't an air of excitement at what they were seeing; it just didn't pay to get emotionally attached to any of the test subjects.
"Psychokinetic force, ten pounds and climbing..."
"Subject's blood pressure up to 140 over 85. Pulse up to 85 bpm. Respiration within normal parameters."
A bead of sweat trickled down Andrew forehead as he felt his nose began to bleed. It wasn't as much a physical effort as it was a strain on his mind. He began to pant, but his mind refused to budge. He shook his head. "I...think that's all I have..." The technicians watched for another ten minutes before calling the test. Amongst themselves, there were mixed opinions of their progress.
Andrew was escorted back to the main room where the subjects were monitored on hospital beds. He lay back down, trembling and fighting waves of nausea. He was also fighting the feeling of dread. Over the last few months, several test subjects had been taken away and were never seen again. What was once a crowded room of patients had dwindled to only half full, and several of those looked in pretty bad shape. He wondered when his time would come.
"You there?" he asked in his head.
A sigh of exhaustion was his reply. "Just barely I think."
Andrew did his best not to let his own feelings creep into his thoughts, but it was probably a futile effort. Victoria's tests involved picking and guessing patterned cards by reading them off the minds of the observers. In those tests, she scored nearly a 100 success rate, which meant hiding strong emotions was probably impossible. Besides, he thought he felt a similar dread in her thoughts as well; the subjects in her test group tended to suffer less physical problems like strokes and heart failures, but more than made up that score in psychoses and catatonia.
"How are they treating her?" he asked. His mental voice was tinged with worry; the doctors weren't too pleased when Victoria became pregnant and took the child away from them when their baby girl was born. It took all the begging they could muster just to let them name the baby.
"They're feeding her, but..." Victoria's voice trailed off with sadness. "She's lonely. They won't even touch her except with those machines. Something about not wanting to contaminate her mental development with emotional bonding."
Andrew suppressed his anger at the cruelty of the remark. It was one thing when he first volunteered. He was single, with no job prospects, no future, and nothing to lose. The whole project had sounded like an exciting journey into science fiction, but had long ago descended into horror. He had watched decent people turned into crazy nuts. Now that he had found someone he wanted to spend his life with, and a baby to care for, it was time to make some changes. He had to find a way out.
"...and the R&D department has reported another 15 people have expired due to the treatments. We're in the process of developing cover stories to deliver to their next of kin."
Dr. Hans Gruber nodded and made a notation. The past several months since the escape of Subjects M21 and F12 had been difficult. They had tried to repeat their success with a variety of new treatments but their results were not satisfying. It wasn't that he was squeamish about deaths or inflicting permanent brain damage, but sooner or later, someone was going to be asking uncomfortable questions about a missing loved one and if he didn't justify his own existence, he might find himself the scapegoat.
As he finished his research notes, John Raintree walked into his office. "What's your status with duplicating your earlier successes?"
Dr. Gruber grimaced. "We've managed to develop a number of psychotropic drugs that have proven affects on suppressing or enhancing psionic potential. However, building powers from non-meta persons is proving difficult."
Raintree held up a folder containing a number of documents. "Did you see this? Washington has confirmed those sightings on people who can actually fly. In Denver, there's a report of a man who has demonstrated roughly five times normal human strength and can withstand small-caliber bullets. California has a group of them who are calling themselves 'The Battalion'. Ordinarily, I would have dismissed them as a gang of over-aged delinquents trying to relive their childhood fantasies, except that at least two of them have provable metahuman abilities. Possibly more of them have powers as well."
Dr. Gruber picked up the folder and leafed through the packet. "My God... the implications this could mean to society... to national security..."
"Precisely," Raintree replied coldly. "We're fortunate that so far these so-called mystery men can still be enforced and contained by conventional measures. I'm sure the drugs you've developed will be very useful in containing the more esoteric abilities. That's why it's vital that we get Project Mindshadow back on track. The government is going to need the ability to create its own metahuman agents."
Dr. Gruber gave the folder back and rubbed his chin. "Perhaps Subjects M21 and F12 are themselves latent metahumans; that would explain a lot on how they would have been able to adapt to the changes easier than the other test subjects."
"Then I have some good news. Our intelligence group has a lead on our wayward test subjects."
Dr. Gruber's attention perked up on hearing the news. "I need them alive. I need to confirm what distinguishes them from our... less successful candidates."
"We'll do our best, but if they resist, we may not have much choice."
Andrew McGee counted his change as he picked his groceries up from the cart. The cashier smiled at him and he returned the greeting. The people in the small town were friendly and had welcomed them since the couple had arrived only a few months ago. Such was the life for a couple on the run.
"Got everything you need Andy?"
"Yeah Bill, I'm good."
Bill Harvey pulled his pickup truck onto the street with Andrew's groceries in the back. As they drove, Andrew kept an eye on the rear view mirror. As a matter of habit, he checked for anyone following him. It had been nearly a year since Victoria and Andrew's escape from the Project. They had made their break during an exercise outing that Victoria had managed to "push" into the minds of their supervisors, followed by Andrew using his gifts to disable and unlock the security gates and steal a Project van.
Over the next several months, Victoria and Andrew had to stay on the move almost constantly as Project agents dogged their trail. In the last few months, they had settled in this rural town in Montana near the Canadian border where Andrew managed to find a job working for Bill Harvey as a stocker at the town's supply store. They were renting a small cabin in a secluded part close to the woods. Pursuit had slowed somewhat as both hoped that being far off the populated areas would buy them some time. Neither one was naive enough to believe that the Project would ever actually give up on them.
"You OK, Andy? You seem kind of nervous."
"Yeah...sure...just thinking about dinner, that's all. What about you Bill, how's life at home?" Andrew asked as he tried to steer the subject away from his unpleasant circumstances.
Bill snorted. "I just wish dinner was my biggest worry." He sighed. "Barbara's been on my case about all sorts of things. I envy you and Vickie. What's your big secret anyway?"
"Being really honest," Andrew smiled. Especially when your wife reads minds, he reminded himself.
The truck pulled up to the cabin and came to a stop. Andrew grabbed the groceries and nodded. "I think I can get these."
"Are you sure? Looks like kind of a lot."
"Nah, I'm good. I'm stronger than I look," Andrew assured him.
"OK, see you tomorrow then?"
"First thing in the morning."
Inside the small cabin, Andrew put the groceries and headed to the bedroom where he heard Victoria with the baby. He watched from the doorway as she held the baby close.
"Hush little baby, don't say a word... mama's gonna buy you a mockingbird..." Victoria whispered in her mind. She could feel the baby's contentment as she gently rocked to sleep. It was difficult for others to get close to little Angelina. The few friends they had met in town said they had dizziness spells and headaches when they got too close to her, which often left Victoria and Andrew making lame excuses. Victoria though never had that problem; like mother like daughter, she thought.
"How is she?" Andrew whispered.
Victoria sighed with contentment and fatigue. "Seems like she's getting stronger every day. If she keeps growing at this pace, she's going to be quite a little trooper." The two of them quietly left the makeshift nursery as Victoria picked up a melted plate. "If we survive the experience."
Andrew shook his head. "Maybe it'll be cheaper if we switch to paper plates." He looked at Victoria, and any lingering frustration faded. No matter what the obstacle, anything was better than being under the thumb of the Project. He put his arms around her shoulders. "We'll find a way. It'll all work out."
Lieutenant Robert Nichols lowered his binoculars as he watched Andrew walk into the cabin. Around him was a small team of soldiers who were tasked to reacquire the test subjects. He tapped his communicator. "They're both inside. Wait until the truck is out of sight. Be better if we can avoid witnesses. Take them alive if you can, but the package is paramount."
"Roger that. Snipers in position..."
Living on the run meant a lot of cheap instant meals, but that was a price both Andrew and Victoria were willing to pay. The small cook stove did an adequate job heading a few cans of-soup. Outside, a dim rumble of sound slowly rolled towards the cabin.
Andrew's preparations were interrupted as he looked outside. "What's that? Thunder?"
Victoria's eyes widened as she shook her head. "They're here!"
Andrew dropped the pots and bolted to the nursery as Victoria followed right behind him. It wasn't the first time they had to make a quick escape and each time meant starting over in another town.
Outside the cabin, four large black suburbans closed in and surrounded the cabin. Teams of soldiers scrambled out and assumed cover positions on the windows and doors as they advanced on the house. The first pair converged on the front door with a battering ram. The door gave way with a crunch.
"Secure the house!" Lieutenant Nichols ordered. Inside soldiers stormed into the living room, checking the closets and other potential hiding places. Downstairs in the basement, Andrew and Victoria made their way to the outdoor cellar entrance and peeked out.
"There's two of them up there," Victoria whispered as she held her hands to her temples. "The rest have the door and garage blocked."
Andrew took Angelina from Victoria so she could concentrate. "Come to daddy sweetheart." He then looked at Victoria. "If we could get to one of their vans, maybe we could get clear. It worked last time."
"The strain almost killed you last time," Victoria protested.
"It's that or go back to the Project," Andrew replied. "Don't worry about me. I'll get the car and handle the soldiers." He handed Angelina back to Victoria. "You just take care of Angie."
Andrew opened the cellar door, and almost immediately got the attention of the soldiers by the door. As they turned and aimed their guns, Andrew exhaled and concentrated as hard as he could. The two soldiers flew backwards and their rifles snapped into pieces. He then turned his attention to the door to the nearest suburban and opened the doors from the inside.
Victoria came out as soon as the doors were opened, taking Angelina in her arms. Behind her, three more soldiers came running around from inside the house and aimed their rifles at her as she placed Angelina into the stolen suburban.
"Stop!" Victoria shouted as the three men froze. "You... you don't want to do this...!" She panted as she gripped her forehead. "You want to put the guns down and walk awa...!"
Suddenly another shot rang out. Andrew froze in shock and horror as a bullet passed through Victoria's body. "No...!" he shouted as her body slumped in his arms. The three gunmen resumed their approach with their guns drawn, and then abruptly flew backwards. A wave of force rippled forward, shattering the suburban windows. Tears of grief ran down Andrew's face as he charged forward. He had to push them back and get Angelina out of here.
"He's coming around the front of the SUV now. Target locked," a voice reported.
"Take him out!" the lead solder ordered.
The burst of another rifle erupted and hit Andrew center-mass. "Tangos down! Get a med-team here stat!" the muffled voice reported coldly as the first soldier gave a hand-signal to his partner to surround the McGees.
"I have the package," the soldier reported as he roughly grabbed the baby from the suburban. She began to whimper, and then cry. The soldier froze and clutched his head in pain. Outside, the other soldiers winced and writhed in agony. The baby cried harder; outside, the soldiers in the area began to ooze with blood and foam from their noses and ears. Despite their briefing and shielding, the pain was like nothing they ever felt.
"G-gas'em all...!" Lieutenant Nichols managed to sputter into his mike as his mouth began to froth with blood. Above the cabin in the sky, a helicopter came over the horizon and fired rockets into the compound. The warheads detonated above the cabin with loud pop, drowning the area with a thick greenish fog. The air fell silent as the soldiers in the area passed out from the anesthesia gas. A few minutes later, the helicopter flew past the area again, blowing the air clear of gas, then landed near the suburbans. Three more soldiers climbed out and surveyed the area, then carefully approached the now-unconscious baby. Lieutenant Nichols nodded, and then the second one pressed his communicator. "Package is secure. We'll need a pickup for our men."
Gruber nodded gravely as he listened to the phone. "I see. Well, good work. Make sure there's nothing there to identify." He hung up and turned towards Raintree. "You were right. They didn't go easily."
Raintree lit a cigarette and smiled thinly. "Frankly, I would have been disappointed if they did. Their tests confirm that they were two of the more promising candidates. Fortunately, having a pair of snipers in position enabled us to present a threat they couldn't detect and counter until it was too late. If they survive, we'll have to make sure they're properly debriefed." Raintree paused as he noted Gruber's reticence. "You disagree?"
"I know I'm not on the operations side of things. But I still think M21 and F12 can be useful to the Project. The fact that they were able to escape and stay ahead of pursuit as long as they did proves they were one of the few who were able to adapt to the program."
"The strike team has instructions to bring them back to the Project. Your team will have all the opportunity it needs to examine them. But we had to retrieve the package."
Gruber walked to the computer monitor and typed some keys. "If the readings the strike team are reporting are accurate, then F67 could be the answer to all our problems. But that won't help if she won't work for us."
"And that is precisely why measures had to be taken to ensure that her upbringing is under our control. Think about it; Andrew and Victoria McGee have already decided to leave the Project. What do you think the likelihood is that they're going to allow Angelina to be drafted into our services? It's quite clear that they are ill-equipped to handle the strain of raising their little girl."
"According to your own intelligence sources, the McGees appeared to be a functional family unit. Why would they lose control after being able to hold her in check for the last year?"
"Simple. Ask yourself this question: How exhausting must it have been for Victoria and Andrew McGee while this child was an infant? The bottle is late, the baby cries, and at that moment, the windows in the bedroom start shattering."
"You're making it sound like she's some kind of monster."
"That's because she is a monster. And she'll be a far more dangerous one if we don't take control. Suppose telekinetics are only the tip of the iceberg?"
"I'm afraid I don't follow you."
"You once told me the psionic talents of the more successful candidates were directly linked to their pituitary gland; in this case, the child's undeveloped pituitary gland. What happens when she becomes an adolescent and that sleeping gland wakes and becomes, for 20 months, the most powerful force in the human body? Suppose we have a child here who, someday, is capable of destroying entire cities simply by the power of her will?"
"Hmm...I see where you're going with this. And that's assuming she's only inherited her father's abilities. What if she's also carrying her mother's gifts as well?"
Raintree nodded. "That is a concern. If she has Victoria's telepathic abilities as well, then we'll have to ensure she can't use them until she's agreed to sign onto the Project. If we don't, then our agents won't stand a chance to indoctrinate her. Can you develop a suppressant to keep her in check?"
Gruber thought it over. "Probably. We're going to have to develop a daily regimen for her to take and we would have to monitor her blood chemistry to keep the psychotropics at the proper levels. What exactly do you have in mind?"
Raintree stood up and began to pace the room. "According to this report, this child may exceed even our wildest projections. She could very well enable us to go from simply responding to metahuman threats to being able to proactively harness them to serve national interests."
"If that's what you're planning, then I hope the agents you select to pose as her foster parents know what they're doing."
"I'm well aware of the stakes. I'm interviewing a promising pair right now. Their job will be to keep her on whatever drug regimen you devise. I'll make sure they understand that their lives and the future of the Project could very well depend on it."